Marxist and opportunist visions of building the party: debate with the IBRP
Marxist and opportunist visions of building the party
A question of method in the discussion
A recent article of ours 1 was devoted "to replying to the thesis of the IBRP that organisations such as ours are 'estranged from the method and perspectives of the work that leads to the formation of the future party'. In order to do so we have taken into consideration the two levels at which the organisational problem is posed: 1) how the future International should be conceived; 2) what policy should be followed for the construction of the organisation and the regroupment of revolutionaries, and in terms of both we have shown that it is the IBRP, not the ICC, that has abandoned the tradition of the Italian and the international Communist Left. In fact the eclecticism that guides the IBRP's policy of regroupment is similar to that of Trotsky when he was taken up with building the IVth International; the vision of the ICC on the other hand is that of the Italian Fraction, which always fought for regroupment with clarity and on a basis that would make it possible to salvage elements of the centre and those with hesitations".
These conclusions, which came at the end of a seven page article, are not the fruit of irrational mind-games, but are rather the expression of an attempt to defend our method of working, and to criticise firmly but fraternally a political group that we consider to be definitely on the same side of the class line as us. In criticising the IBRP our starting point has always been the texts of the IBRP itself, which we have made a great effort to reproduce as far as possible in our article, and our arguments have been based on a confrontation with the common tradition of the Communist Left, to check the validity of the one hypothesis or the other in the difficult work of building a revolutionary vanguard.
In reply, Battaglia Comunista (BC), one of the two political components of the IBRP, has published an article 2 that raises a number of problems. In fact the article is a reply to the ICC, which however is named only when it's absolutely necessary; the whole article is superficial, completely devoid of quotations from our positions, which are instead synthesised by BC in a way that clearly distorts the meaning of some of them (we want to believe that this is due to a failure of understanding and not bad faith). There is also a tendency to develop the article more in the spirit of trying to catch the sympathy of the reader with jokes intended to have a certain effect, rather than openly confronting the questions at issue. But above all, in this article BC refuses to situate itself on the only level possible, the one on which our reply was based, that is on the historical level. It rather limits itself to giving an impromptu and elusive reply which in fact remains inconclusive. The view put forward that our article is "bilious" and that it contains "attacks and slanders" against the IBRP is symptomatic of this attitude 3 and we think that it confirms our criticism in the previous article of the IBRP's opportunism since, historically, opportunism has always tended to avoid political confrontation because this would obviously show it up for what it is. Of course we can do no more than refer all our readers to our previous article for them to judge to what extent this position of BC is false, if not actually in bad faith 4. But at the same time we don't want to follow BC's contortions in this article or in future ones because we don't want to get bogged down in sterile and endless polemics. However with this article we will try to further elaborate our view of the building of the revolutionary organisation, developing two points in particular:
a ) a reply to the argumentation given by BC in its article,
b ) a reply to the IBRP's critiques on our supposed idealism, which is the IBRP's pretext for declaring us unable to build a force worthy of participating in the construction of the world party.
Once more on building the party
The second part of BC's article tries to defend their own opportunist policy on building the international party, in contrast to our way of working. So let's recall the fundamental elements previously developed. This is the IBRP's criticism of how to create national sections of an international organisation:
"We reject, on principle, as well as on the basis of different congress resolutions, the idea of creating national sections as clones of one already existing organisation, even ours. National sections of the international party of the proletariat cannot be built in a largely artificial way in a country by creating a centre for translating publications edited elsewhere and, moreover, outside the real political and social struggles of the country itself" (our emphasis) 5.
To this we replied as follows:
"Our strategy for international regroupment is of course ridiculed by referring to it as 'creating a centre for translating publications edited elsewhere' ? so as to induce in the reader an automatic distaste for the strategy of the ICC. (...) For the IBRP, if a new group of comrades appears, let's say in Canada, who are moving towards internationalist positions, this group can benefit from critical fraternal contributions, even polemics, but it must grow and develop from the political context of its own country, inside 'the real political and social struggles of the country itself'. This means that for the IBRP the current and local context of a given country is more important than the international and historical framework furnished by the experience of the workers' movement. What, on the other hand, is the strategy for the construction of the organisation at an international level (...)? Whether there are one or one hundred aspiring militants in a new country, our strategy is not to create a local group that evolves locally, through the "real political and social battle of the country itself" but to integrate these new militants immediately into the international work of the organisation, one aspect of which is centralised intervention in the country in which these comrades live. This is why, even if our resources are small, our organisation makes the effort to be present immediately with a local publication under the responsibility of the new group of comrades because we hold that this is the most direct and effective way, on the one hand to extend our influence and, on the other to proceed directly to the construction of the revolutionary organisation. What is artificial about that, what sense does it make to talk about 'clones of one already existing organisation'? This has yet to be explained".
The really surprising thing is that BC is unable to oppose a minimum of political argument to this reasoning of ours except that... they don't believe it. This in fact is their position:
"Can a stronger and representative multi-national 'expansion' of the organisations be conceived? No.
Because revolutionary politics is a serious thing: you can't imagine that a 'section' of a few comrades in a country other than the 'mother' one can concretely constitute an element of real organisation [Why not?, we would like to know].
We must have the courage to recognise the difficulty in making an organisation really function on a national scale; the co-ordination of a 'campaign' on a national scale isn't always complete; the distribution of the press, given our organisational conditions of being 'few in number' reflects the smallest variation in the availability of militants and we could give other concrete organisational examples".
So that's the truth of the matter! BC doesn't believe in the possibility of putting together an international organisation simply because it's not even able to control its own organisation at a national level! But the fact that BC can't do it doesn't mean that it can't be done. The existence of the ICC clearly gives the lie to this way of arguing. BC talks of the difficulty distributing the press at a national level but doesn't take into account - just to give one example - that the English and Spanish language press of the ICC (the International Review in particular) is distributed in about twenty countries in the world. It doesn't take into account either that, when necessary, our organisation is able, and has demonstrated this whenever it has been necessary, to distribute the same leaflet immediately and simultaneously in every country in which it has a presence and also in others! Once more BC doesn't take into account a reality that is in front of its eyes, if only it made the effort to keep them open, which shows that the ICC really is a single international organisation, whatever the size of the sections existing in this or that country.
All this gives rather the impression that BC's argument that "We must have the courage to recognise the difficulty making an organisation really function" is developed merely to deny the possibility of constructing an international organisation today, without any scientific basis. But unfortunately there's more. In BC's article another unhealthy idea emerges of how a revolutionary organisation must be developed in a country:
"Moreover, a mini-section parachuted into a country doesn't have the possibility of implanting itself within that country's political scene, as does an organisation which - however small - arises from the political scene itself, orienting itself around revolutionary positions. (...) He who doesn't understand, or pretends not to understand, that political identity isn't enough to form a revolutionary organisation, either has no sense of organisation or is so lacking in organisational experience that he thinks that the topic is irrelevant. (...) You're not qualified for this task if you don't carry out the primordial task of putting down roots within the class, even if today they're unfortunately limited" 6.
The meaning of this passage is frankly worrying. What emerges from BC's exposition is that it's better to have a group that "arises from the political scene itself [ie locally, ed.), orienting itself around revolutionary positions", no matter how confused it is at the beginning, than to have in the same locality "a mini-section parachuted into a country". But the real "roots" of an organisation in the class are not to be judged on the basis of the momentary popularity of their positions among the workers. That is the immediatist and opportunist approach. The real laying down of roots is to be judged at an historic level (related to the past experience of the class and to its becoming). The main criteria for "putting down roots" is clarity at the level of the programme and the analyses, which makes it possible:
- to make a real contribution in the face of whatever confusions may exist among the workers,
- to build solidly for the future.
This was the whole point of the debate between Lenin and the Mensheviks, who wanted to have a bigger impact by opening the door of the party to confused and hesitant elements. It is also the point of the debate between the Italian Left and the majority of the Communist International (CI) on the constitution of the Communist Parties (on a "tight" or "loose" basis, since the CI wanted to have "roots" in the working masses as rapidly as possible). The Fraction argued the same position against the Trotskyists in the 1930s. The organisation can never root itself in the class by balancing its principles and watering them down. This is one of the great lessons of the Left's fight that the IBRP has forgotten today, just as the PCInt forgot it in 1945.
The inconsistency of BC's argumentation is a consequence of the fact that the group refuses to reply to the questions raised in our previous article, which are:
a) Does BC think that the position on the organisational question elaborated by the workers' movement is wrong, and why?
b) Or does it think that in relation to the period of Lenin, of Bilan, the historic period has changed and so requires a different type of organisation? And if so, why?
We're still waiting for a reply!
On our supposed idealism
It is well known that BC accuses us of being idealist and of having an analysis of the current situation that reflects this vision. Just recently, during a public meeting held by Battaglia Comunista in Naples, in reply to a request to explain our presumed idealism, BC replied thus:
"There are three points that characterise the idealism of the ICC.
The first is the concept of decadence: this is a concept that we too employ but it isn't possible to explain the economic concept of decadence on the basis of sociological factors alone. The question is that decadence can be explained by starting from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. We say that capitalism undergoes decadence not because of the existence of the crisis (there have always been cyclical crises) but because there is a particularly serious crisis. We say that the ICC is idealist because the concept of decadence is abstract, idealist.
The second is on the analysis of imperialism: when the USSR existed we were used to seeing imperialism with two faces: the USSR and the USA. With the diminishing of one of the two imperialist poles, the other dominates on the military, economic level etc. But within this new situation there's an attempt at an imperialist regroupment in Europe. How can the ICC explain this new phase by speaking only of chaos? The ICC confuses the lucid intention to dominate on the imperialist scene with chaos.
The third reason is in relation to the question of consciousness, and it is the most important one. We've heard some incredible things, such as that the working class has a level of consciousness that can prevent the 3rd World War".
We suppose that by criticising us for idealism BC intends to accuse our organisation of not following the real problems and of giving way to fantasies, to idealism in fact. We hold that on the contrary, as we will try to demonstrate, this critique on the part of BC is founded on a lazy and incorrect understanding of our political analyses that can be justified only by an uncontrollable desire to demarcate themselves from our organisation.
So we will try to give some elements in reply even if we obviously can't develop such broad topics in depth.
The decadence of capitalism: it is true that the ICC's analysis is different from that of BC but it's absolutely false to say that for us the "economic concept of decadence" can be explained "on the basis of sociological factors alone" The comrades of BC know quite well that, whereas their framework is based on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the ICC makes reference to the later theoretical developments of Luxemburg 7 on the saturation of extra-capitalist markets, which doesn't however exclude the variable of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. So our framework too has an economic basis and certainly not a sociological one and anyway, over and above the two different economic explanations, the fundamental aspect is that both analyses attempt to explain the same situation, that of the decadence of capitalism, on which we're completely agreed. So where is the idealism?
Imperialism and chaos: if the ICC did indeed defend the position described by BC, then it would not be very credible. But the question of chaos is not a phenomenon in itself: it is a consequence of the collapse of the two imperialist blocs in 1989 and the weakening of the discipline that they managed to impose on their member countries, which during the period of the cold war guaranteed on the whole and in spite of the danger of world war, a certain "pacification" within each individual bloc and on the international scene itself. "The ICC confuses the lucid intention to dominate on the imperialist scene with chaos"? Not at all! By starting from the lucid intention not only of the great, but also of the smaller powers to dominate on the world imperialist scene, the ICC sees in the present situation a tendency to increasingly diffuse and multi-directional conflicts, a tendency in which each one tends to come into conflict with all the others, in which there are no longer, or at least not for the moment, new imperialist blocs that could cohere and orient the imperialist ambitions of the individual countries; indeed, we have difficulty envisaging the prospect of their formation in the short term 8.
In this new situation, in which the aforesaid discipline diminishes, the individual countries leap into imperialist adventures coming increasingly into conflict with one another: this is what gives rise to chaos, that is, a situation without the previous control and discipline but whose basic dynamic is very clear. Is this position of ours really so foolish and ? idealist?
Lastly on the working class preventing war: we repeat yet again that when we say that the historic resurgence of the class struggle has prevented the bourgeoisie from imposing its outcome to the capitalist crisis, that is the Third World War, we certainly don't mean that the working class is aware of the danger of war and so consciously opposes it. If this were the case we would certainly be in a pre-revolutionary situation and the evidence shows that this isn't so. What we do say however, is that the resurgence of the struggle has made the class more sensitive and less malleable than it was in the 1940s and 50s. The fact that they can't count on the complete control and support of the proletariat raises problems for the bourgeoisie and inhibits them from launching an imperialist conflict.
In fact, in the present period, even if the class' combativeness and consciousness are at a low level, the bourgeoisie does not have the capacity to mobilise the workers of the developed countries behind a war ideology (whether this be the nation, anti-fascism or anti-imperialism, etc). In order to wage war it's not enough to have workers who aren't very combative, it needs workers who are ready to risk their lives for some bourgeois ideal.
Although the IBRP now pretend to be very wise, they themselves have had (and have!) difficulties analysing the international situation. For example, at the time of the fall of the Eastern bloc, BC didn't have very clear ideas at the beginning and attributed the "collapse" to a process that had been piloted by Gorbatchev in order to re-shuffle the cards between the blocs and score points against American imperialism.
"What is exploding, or has already exploded, is the Yalta accord. The cards are being re-shuffled at the scene of a crisis which, although it's shattering the rouble zone dramatically, certainly hasn't hesitated to insinuate itself into the dollar zone (...). Gorbatchev is playing competently on both European tables and in his dealings with the other super power. The steps towards the rapprochement of Eastern and Western Europe isn't a phenomenon that contributes to the tranquillity of the US and Gorby knows it" (from "The cards between the blocs are re-shuffled: the illusions in existing socialism collapse" in Battaglia Comunista n°12, December 1989) 9.
At the same time, they talked of the opening up of new markets in the eastern countries which would be able to give a puff of oxygen to these countries.
"The collapse of the markets on the periphery of capitalism, Latin America for example, has created new problems of insolvency for the payment of capital? The new opportunities opened up in Eastern Europe could represent a safety valve for investment needs? If this great process of East-West collaboration is concretised it will act as a whiff of oxygen for international capital" (from "The western bourgeoisie applauds the opening up of the eastern countries" in Battaglia Comunista of October 1989) 10. When at the beginning of 1990, the Rumanian bourgeoisie decided to get rid of the dictator Ceaucescu, putting on an incredible drama to whet the appetite of the people for democracy (the worst form of bourgeois dictatorship) BC went so far as to speak of Rumania as a country in which there were "all the objective and almost all the subjective conditions to enable the insurrection to develop into a real social revolution but the absence of an authentic class force has left the terrain free for those forces that stand for the maintenance of bourgeois relations of production" (Battaglia Comunista n°1, January 1990) .
Finally, what are we to say about the article of the sympathisers in Colombia, which Battaglia publishes on its front page without so much as a comment or a criticism and which presents that country as being almost in a state of insurrection:
"In recent years the social movement in Colombia (...) has acquired a particular radicality and breadth. (...) Today the strikes are transformed into tumult; the cities are paralysed by revolt, the protest of the urban masses end in violent clashes on the streets. (...) To sum up: in Colombia there's an insurrectionary process taking place that is sparked off by capitalist mechanisms and by the exacerbation and extension of the conflict between the two bourgeois military fronts" (from Battaglia Comunista n°9, September 2000, our emphasis).
At this point we might ask where the idealism is really to be found, in our articles or in the fanciful analyses of the IBRP 11?
The most recent slips on decadence
Unfortunately there's more. For some time now, despite their contemptuous judgements on a proletarian political camp that has failed to come up to the needs of the period, it's actually BC that has more and more been questioning its (and our) basic analysis of the historic period. Their evaluation of reality is increasingly dependent on the impromptu interpretation of whoever happens to draft the article. Just recently we have criticised BC to correct a serious slip on the role of the unions in the present period 12 which is in contradiction with the BC's own historic position. But in the same article in Prometeo n°2 we find a series of passages which go back to the question (we won't quote our previous polemic) and which cast doubt on the concept of the decadence of capitalism itself, a position that unites the two organisations, the IBRP and the ICC, and which is a legacy of the workers' movement, from Marx and Engels, from the IIIrd International, to Rosa Luxemburg AND LENIN! (whom they follow), and to the Communist Left that emerged from the International after its degeneration following the revolutionary wave of the 1920s. The article in fact characterises the current situation by means of "ascending phases in the accumulation cycle" and "phases of decadence in the cycle" of accumulation rather than treating it as the historic period of the irreversible decadence of capitalism in contrast to a preceding historic phase which is generally one of development even though accompanied by crises.
"There (...) is a schema, that is, the division of capitalism's history into two main epochs: its ascendance and its decadence. Almost everything that was valid for communists during the former, is no longer so during the latter for the simple reason that there is no longer growth but rather decadence. An example? The unions: they were useful and it was right for revolutionaries to work inside them and try to control them previously but it's no longer valid. Not even the hint of reference to the unions' historic, institutional role of mediation; nor of the relationship between this role and the different phases of capitalism or of the objective relationship between the rate of profit and the room to bargain. (...) In the ascending phase of the accumulation cycle, the union, as 'lawyer' can get concessions on wages and conditions (which are however immediately reabsorbed by capital); in the decadent phase of the cycle the room for mediation is reduced to zero and the unions, continuing their historic function, are reduced to mediating indeed but in favour of conservation, functioning as agents of capitalist interests within the working class.
The ICC on the other hand divides history into two parts: when the unions are positive for the working class - without specifying how and on what ground - and when they become negative.
We see similar schematism on the question of wars of national liberation.
So the formal proposal of positions that are indubitable and so apparently shared, is accompanied by a substantial divergence, if not alienation, from historical materialism and an inability to examine the objective situation" 13.
As this part of the article is explicitly developed as a reply to the ICC, we must point out that BC really has a very short memory if it doesn't even remember the basic positions of the ICC on the unions developed in dozens and dozens of articles and in particular in a pamphlet specifically dedicated to the union question 14 which makes extensive "reference to the unions' historic, institutional role of mediation" and to "the relationship between this role and the different phases of capitalism". We invite comrades to read or re-read our pamphlet to check the inaccuracy of BC's assertions.
But we think it's useful to bear in mind what Marx and Engels said one and a half centuries ago: "At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution" (Marx-Engels, Introduction to A contribution to the critique of political economy, Progress Publishers, pg 21.).
We want to believe that BC simply made a slip of the pen, that it used terms that are inappropriate in trying to reply to our arguments. Because if this isn't the case we have to ask what BC means by these phrases. Perhaps that, after a phase of recession and with the recovery of an accumulation cycle, the working class can go back to trusting in the unions to "get concessions on wages and conditions"? If this is the case we want BC to tell us what were, in its opinion, "the ascendant phases of the accumulation cycle" in recent decades and what have been the corresponding "concessions on wages and conditions" on the part of the unions to the working class.
Moreover, on national liberation struggles, on which the ICC expresses "similar schematism", what do the comrades of BC mean, that in this case too we can support Arafat or his like because the accumulation cycle of capital is assured and it's not in recession? If this isn't the correct interpretation, what does BC mean?
In this article we have shown that it isn't the ICC that has an idealist vision of reality but rather BC that lives in theoretic confusion and has an opportunist approach in its intervention. We have the strong impression that all the arguments developed by BC in polemic with "a proletarian political camp that is no longer up to its tasks and so has been superseded by the times" are no more than a smoke screen to hide its own opportunist slidings and also a certain deviation on a programmatic level, that is beginning to worry us. In particular, given the current tendency of the IBRP to see itself as "alone in the world" in the face of a proletarian political camp that is no longer up to its tasks, it would be opportune for the comrades to go back to the brochure and to the numerous texts that they've written in polemics against the Bordigists, where they rightly criticise the fact that each Bordigist group considers itself to be THE PARTY and rejects the others as worthless. For this reason we invite BC (and the IBRP) to take our criticisms seriously and not to hide themselves behind ridiculous accusations of biliousness or dishonesty. Let's try to be up to our tasks.
9th March 2001 Ezechiele
1 "The marxist and opportunist visions in the policy of building the party", International Review no.103, 4th quarter 2000.
2 "The New International will be the international party of the Proletariat" in Prometeo n°2, December 2000.
3 We should note that in the workers' movement accusations of "slander", "biliousness", etc were typically used by centrist and opportunist elements against the polemics directed at them by left currents (Lenin was seen as a "wicked slanderer" when he took up the fight against the Mensheviks, Rosa too was accused of being "hysterical" when she fought against Bernstein and later against Kautsky on the question of the mass strike). Rather than making this type of accusation, the IBRP should explain why our criticisms are false and even "slanderous". It's not enough to assert it as a fact, it must be demonstrated. On the other hand the IBRP is ill placed to level this kind of reproach at us as they're not backward in the use of such descriptions themselves, in particular the assertion, without any proof, that we are not part of the proletarian camp. This is a case of seeing the straw in your neighbour's eye while not seeing the beam in your own.
4 It's important to note that the comrades of BC reacted with particular rancour to our first reply in as far as they identified the description "opportunist" with that of "counter-revolutionary". This identification can be seen to be wrong and unfounded to anyone who knows the history of the workers' movement. Opportunism has always been understood as a deformation of revolutionary positions existing within the workers' movement. It's only the ambiguity and the lack of clarity of Bordigism (and of BC itself) that has allowed them to go on denoting as opportunist, political formations that have already gone over to the counter-revolution, such as the various Stalinist CPs, and so to identify opportunism with the counter-revolution.
5 IBRP; "Towards the new International"
6 From "The New International will be ?", pg 10.
7 See in particular the two main works of Rosa Luxemburg in which this theory is developed: The accumulation of capital and The accumulation of capital - an anti-critique, published by Monthly Review Press.
8 One of the main reasons why the reconstitution of the blocs isn't on the agenda today is that there is no country even remotely capable of challenging the United States in military terms. A country like Germany needs many long years (certainly more than a dozen) before it can possess a credible military potential.
9 For more details on this "swerve" see our aticle "The wind from the Eastern and the response of revolutionaries" in International Review n°61.
11 We will mention again that, at the time of the strikes in Poland in August '80, the CWO raised the slogan "Revolution now!" in its paper, when the situation wasn't in fact a revolutionary one. The comrades of the CWO have told us that this was an accident, that the title and the article was produced by one militant, who hadn't got the agreement of the other members and that the paper was immediately withdrawn from circulation. We accept the explanation but even so it must be admitted that there wasn't great political or organisational clarity at the time if one of its members could think and write such a stupid thing and the organisation couldn't prevent it from being published. The militant concerned probably wasn't just anyone as the CWO gave him the responsibility to publish the paper without it first being controlled by the organisation or by a publications committee. It's only in anarchist circles that this type of serious individual error is possible or else in the Italian Socialist Party in 1914-15, when Mussolini published an article in Avanti calling for participation in the war, without informing anyone beforehand. But at the time Benito was at least the director of the paper (and had been bought secretly by Cachin with money from the French government). Anyway the internal organisation of the CWO at the time left a lot to be desired. We hope that it has improved since then.
12 See the article "I sindacati hanno cambiato ruolo con la decadenza del capitalismo?" in Rivoluzione Internazionale n°116
13 From "The New International will be?", pg 8-9.
14 Unions against the working class, now published in all the major European languages.